As a technology blog, tech-52 has not been alone in predicting that the cable TV industry will fade into obscurity. Most interested observers believe that the home entertainment model will move to streaming almost exclusively.
Of course, the cable industry is not going away without a fight. We’re starting to see offerings such as skinny bundles, which offer smaller packages of channels for a lower monthly cost.
Nonetheless, the technologies and equipment used by the cable industry are aging, costly, cumbersome, and not particularly reliable.
One such piece of equipment is the DVR (digital video recorder). Most cable providers will lease subscribers a DVR box to replace the ubiquitous cable box. DVRs enable you to record programs for later viewing, and even to pause “live” TV, should you need a bio break.
In my experience, the DVRs provided by cable companies are poorly designed, with head-scratching user interfaces and remote controls that are complicated and unwieldy.
The little engine that could
Which brings us to TiVo, a little company based in San Jose, California. TiVo also happens to be the product name of the DVR units that the company manufactures.
If you are still attached to your cable provider, taking a pass on the generic DVR and opting for a TiVo DVR will provide an exponentially better DVR experience.
Now, I say that with a couple of caveats. First, if your cable provider is reluctant to support your TiVo, or denies support completely, you have to decide how far you want to push it. The Federal Communications Commission has mandated that cable providers support customers who provide their own CableCARD-enabled devices, such as TiVo. If you inform your provider of FCC Rules 76.1205(b)(5 and 76.1602(b), and they still refuse to budge, then your only recourse is to file a complaint with the FCC.
However, if like my cable company (Charter), your provider welcomes and supports TiVo, then you’re most of the way there.
The other thing to keep in mind is that TiVo includes a monthly charge from the company—typically $9.99—to deliver its updated program guide and provide other general support. This is over and above what you’re paying to your cable provider. And you’ll also have to pay a monthly charge for the CableCARD itself (usually, $2.99 or $3.99).
A TiVo box without a current subscription is essentially unusable. You can debate the validity/fairness of this approach, but it is what it is.
So, your monthly nut is going to be around $14 per TiVo box that you have in your household. We currently have two, so it adds up.
Before cable TV became all-digital in 2012, setting up a TiVo box in your home was pretty easy, and you didn’t really need your cable company’s permission or support. TiVo, the company, meticulously designed, developed, and tested a Guided Setup capability, which it provides with every TiVo box, even today.
After 2012, TiVo had to release DVRs that supported the CableCARD standard. About the size of an old 3.5-inch floppy disk, the CableCARD device fits into the TiVo box, and essentially turns it into a DVR/cable box for your cable provider.
Initial support of CableCARD devices from Charter (and I suspect other cable providers) was spotty.
In my case, Charter had to send a technician to install the CableCARD and ensure everything was running correctly. When I ran into glitches, which seemed to happen every few months, a technician had to come and troubleshoot and fix the issue.
As someone who is used to doing this sort of thing on my own, this was highly frustrating. Still, when TiVo worked, it worked well, and I was a happy camper.
Nowadays, the CableCARD technology is much improved, and Charter and most other cable companies allow you to install the device and simply call them to activate it. When I do run into a problem, which is much more rare, I can usually get it fixed with a phone call.
The whole widget
OK, so what’s so great about TiVo? First and foremost, the TiVo company, like Apple, designs and supports both the product hardware and software. The whole widget, if you will. Also, like Apple, TiVo can automatically update the software running on its devices over the Internet, fixing bugs and adding new features along the way.
TiVo has made the user interface of its devices elegant and fairly easy to learn and navigate. With each TiVo box, you get the company’s iconic remote control, which is ergonomically designed, and thoughtfully laid out. The remote, through a fairly simple procedure, is also able to control your TV and, if you have one, your A/V receiver.
TiVo’s most recent device, the TiVo Bolt, is promoted to replace your cable box while still supporting your cable subscription. The oddly-shaped box is said to be 4K video compatible, and like other TiVo boxes, supports all the usual streaming services. It offers a commercial-skip feature, as well as its recently introduced QuickMode, which lets you watch an hour show in about 42 minutes. The Bolt retails for $299, not including the monthly subscription cost.
Except for 4K support, these features are available on other recent TiVo models, such as the TiVo Roamio, the model I’m currently using.
Features that I really like on the TiVo Roamio are its Wish List and OnePass capabilities.
If you’re waiting for a new movie or program to be broadcast, you can put it in your Wish List, and TiVo will alert you when it’s available.
With OnePass, you can set up an ongoing recording event for programs that are currently being broadcast. You can specify an entire season in the OnePass, and request that it be recorded in HD. TiVo tracks if you’ve missed an episode, and records it the next time it plays.
Nowadays, I time-shift virtually all the programming that I watch, but I will still occasionally tune in to a show on the appointed hour, and pause it for 15 or 20 minutes. Then I can start it and fast-forward through commercials while the program is still recording.
Other nifty features include built-in Wi-Fi and multi-room sharing. For a program that I started watching in the living room, I can finish it in the bedroom, either by streaming from the living room TiVo, or by copying to the bedroom TiVo, then watching it.
There is a whole host of features that TiVo provides, which I haven’t provided in detail here, but plenty of info can be found on TiVo’s website, if you’re interested.
Capable streaming device
Except for Plex, which lets you watch your own videos from a local server in your house, the streaming services are all mostly extra-cost options from the service providers themselves. You can watch YouTube’s free programming without a subscription, but the YouTube Live Streaming option will cost you.
The TiVo ethic is fairly content-provider agnostic. If the provider enables third-party support, TiVo is ready and willing to let you access that content.
Unfortunately, in today’s fragmented entertainment environment, there’s still some infighting going on among device manufacturers and content providers.
Because I also want access to Apple’s iTunes, I have to maintain an AppleTV in my A/V system, so between AppleTV and TiVo, I’m paying for a fair amount of duplication.
Maybe someday, as rumored, Apple will support streaming of popular channels, as well as Amazon content. Actual recording of content would become a thing of the past, and I can finally break free of cable TV entirely.
For now, however, a TiVo box is a very good entertainment system and the best DVR money can buy.